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Cornice Collapse, Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Mount Patterson

CORNICE COLLAPSE

Alberta, Rocky Mountains, Mount Patterson

On July 24, 1985, two men were climbing Bluebird Glacier on Mount Patterson. About 1900 hours, they were two pitches above the bergschrund on the final ice pitch that leads to the summit ridge, where ice slopes about 50 degrees. A large cornice fell 120 meters from the ridge at the top of the pitch and hit both climbers. The lead climber (DK) took a direct hit and was knocked from his stance. He had one screw in place and two ice tools planted, which were tied into his harness with a 5 mm rope and a 2.5 cm tape sling. He had tied himself off to the ice screw with a clove hitch on a carabiner. The carabiner broke in half, and the 5 mm rope and 2.5 cm tape also broke from the impact. DK found half of the carabiner still on the rope when he regained consciousness after the fall. During the fall, he pulled out an intermediate screw. The screw had an “Air Voyager” runner (a folded and sewn tape sling); all the stitching was ripped out before the screw pulled. As DK fell past his partner (JC), he hit him feet first with his crampons, adding to his injuries. DK finally came to an abrupt halt at the end of the rope on the downhill side of the bergschrund. The two screws at the belay position held.

JC’s biggest problem upon regaining consciousness was the severe tension in his harness from the weight of his partner. He solved this problem by cutting the rope. JC used a second rope to body rappel down to his partner. As he crossed the bergschrund, he retrieved his pack (lost in the accident), only to lose it again and have it roll into a crevasse. (This must have been a depressing moment, as the pack contained all the bivouac gear for both men.) Because of their injuries, they were unable to move much further, and spent 24 hours waiting for help. Both climbers suffered concussions and had been unconscious for a period of time after the accident. In addition, DK severely damaged both knees and suffered back injuries from falling ice and crampon wounds.

The next day a rescue was initiated through a routine check of climbing registrations. The climbers were found and flown off the mountain at 1830. (Source: D. Norcross, Banff National Park)

Analysis

The climbers were on this route too late in the day. Both men were experienced climbers and knew the cornice hanging above was a significant hazard, but they were anxious to finish the climb. A bivouac and an early start the next morning would have been safer. The climbers were lucky to be rescued the day after the accident. In their condition, a second night at below-freezing temperatures would have greatly reduced their chances for survival. An addtional point is that this accident shows the enormous forces the human body can withstand and survive. (Source: D. Norcross, Banff National Park)